Playwright Warren Leight
The Tony Award winning play Side Man dramatizes the emotional elements of a dying jazz culture and its effects on an American family whose very soul depended on it. Playwright Warren Leight’s fascinating dark comedy chronicles three decades of living through the lives of jazz sidemen, and is filled with humor, honor, passion and pain.
In our exclusive interview, Leight talks about the difficulty of getting an audience for a play about jazz musicians, challenges he faced as a writer, dramatizing jazz as art, and trumpeter Clifford Brown’s impact on the performance.
JJM What is your background?
WL I grew up in New York. My father was a trumpet player, my mother worked for the city. When I was sixteen I went to Stanford University on a scholarship, where I majored in journalism. Although I also studied film, Italian, and political science, I don’t think I ever took a course in the theater. After graduating I came back to New York, and briefly worked at a publishing company before quitting to become a freelance writer. Like my sideman father, I basically booked jobs as they came over the last two decades. When I started out, I’d write a horror movie one month, a documentary the next, then a cabaret act, a corporate speech, a travel article for doctors-at-leisure, a humor piece for National Lampoon, and a “His” column for Madamoiselle. Over time I found I had an ear for dialogue, and I gravitated toward theater and film work. One paid, the other didn’t.
JJM Who was your childhood hero?
WL Mickey Mantle. Although I also liked Groucho Marx, and Charlie Parker. Then Thurber and Runyon.
JJM What is the first play you witnessed that made the biggest impression on you?
WL I didn’t see plays growing up. My father played in the Hair band, and when he booked that job (a show he was certain would close the night it opened) our lives changed for awhile. So Hair made the first impression. I didn’t start to see dramas until much later in life, by which time I probably wasn’t too impressionable.
JJM What event led to your wanting to become a writer?
WL I was always going to be a writer, or so everyone tells me now. I think little guys in tough neighborhoods grow up a bit on the outside of the schoolyard. I was last pick every time sides were chosen for anything, and so while other boys were identifying with athletes, I began to identify first with sports columnists, then newspaper writers in general.
JJM Side Man tells the story of a jazz musician’s love affair with his work over a 30-year period, and effectively communicates the stages of the demise of jazz’s importance to mid-century American culture. In spite of the changes surrounding his work, Gene, the trumpet-playing husband to Terry and father to Clifford, makes a hectic living amid the desperate circumstances of declining opportunity, family crisis and dysfunction. Is Side Man totally autobiographical?
WL Yes and no. In broad strokes, it’s autobiographical. In hundreds of details it’s fiction or redaction or dramatization. For example, unlike Clifford the narrator, I am not an only child, I did get far away for college, and I never went years without talking to my dad. Also, the first half of the play takes place before I was born, so when Clifford narrates act one, he’s conjecturing.
As was I when I wrote it.
On the other hand, the details of a musician’s life, and the life of a musician’s family come from my childhood. I didn’t research the play.
Pasadena Playhouse performance
Foreground, Dennis Christopher (Gene) seated, from l – r: Gareth Williams (Al), Daniel Reichert (Jonesy), JD Cullum (Clifford), Mare Winningham (Terry), Ethan Phillips, (Ziggy)
JJM How difficult was it to get Side Man an audience?
WL At the risk of sounding like a sore winner, I have to say it was almost impossible. And it’s a long story.
I was not on the map as a playwright when I finished my first rough, anecdote-filled draft. I was able to get readings from a few friendly, under-financed artistic directors (Susann <sic> Brinkley and John McCormack) but basically no one was interested in producing the play. I was in a theater company, Naked Angels, that eventually gave me and Angels-in-Progress workshop in the basement of the West Bank Cafe on 42nd Street.
I conned Michael Mayer, who was not-yet-but-almost a famous director, into doing the workshop. He was over-booked and liked the script, but didn’t really have time to prep it. We cast it between ourselves over the phone in about an hour. I suggested Edie Falco, who had never done a full-length play, he suggested Frank Wood. Frank went on to win the Tony, and Edie’s of course a star now. But at the time we were four journeymen in a basement. The workshop worked. I did good rewrites of Act 2. We had full houses. Everyone loved it.
No one did anything. For some reason, this became the play’s pattern. Audiences responded, producers and theater companies and agents didn’t.
Except for one theater agent. She didn’t represent me but she liked the play, and slipped it to a summer theater company based at Vassar in Poughkeepsie. New York Stage and Film gave us a ten-show production. By the second week limos were coming up from New York and famous divas were clutching my hand to their bosoms and saying I was the young man who was going to save American theater.
The play was then rejected or ignored by every theater company it was sent to for the next year and a half. One felt it was too esoteric. Another felt narration was old fashioned. Another artistic director liked it a lot, but couldn’t afford to produce a play with seven actors. Whatever the reasons, the truth was no one wanted to do it, or could raise the money to do it; worse, almost no one even responded. I imagine it is still sitting unread under a pile of scripts in a couple of dozen theaters. I was an unknown writer and jazz musicians were not the subject of theater. Particularly not white jazz musicians.
Eventually Peter Manning, the former managing director of New York Stage and Film, who’d been championing the script all the while, found the Weissberger Group, a small New York non-profit. They agreed to produce a short run in a 90-seat house. The New York Times review came out, and I’d like to say from there on in it was clear sailing, but… for the next year and a half, Side Man kept having to overcome a lack of confidence on the part of producers and theater people. Audiences responded to it viscerally. I have boxes of letters people wrote. But even after it moved to the Roundabout, and then to Broadway with Christian Slater, theater producers didn’t trust it. Then it won the Tony.
And the rest was easy. The New York production went to the Kennedy Center, and then London. By now there have been dozens of other productions, including Steppenwolf, and the Guthrie, and performances in Germany, Ireland, and Japan.
JJM A terrific line from the play that may best describe Gene’s life is when Clifford (Gene’s son) said, “I used to wonder how he (Gene) could sense everything when he was blowing and almost nothing when he wasn’t.” Because Side Man is so closely connected to your own life, exposing such intimate family secrets can’t be easy. What different challenges did you face as a writer given its personal nature than if you were writing a story you could be personally detached from?
WL I have always said I avoided writing Side Man for twenty years. During that time, I felt I had a monkey on my back. I hadn’t written my serious play. I’d written a lot of comedy, but almost no drama. I’d written for hire, but not for myself. I was afraid to go near my past. I suppose the twenty-year lay out worked for the best. By the time I sat down and started writing, I had some emotional distance and perspective. I was not writing out of anger, in the way I would have in my thirties; or while in denial (see my twenties). When I finally started writing, I realized I had been working on the play for twenty years. The last lines of Side Man were from a short story I’d written in college, other pieces had been performed in stand-up or in one-acts. The first draft came quickly. Despite everything I’ve just written, the toughest Act 2 scenes, in which Clifford confronts his father, and visits his mother after a breakdown, were the last scenes I wrote, in that basement workshop.
JJM Ralph Ellison wrote of bebop, “The world evoked by this music is a different world. The music here is more abstract. It has become separated from the ritual form of the dance, and the vocal definitions once supplied by song are missing. More important, the response of its audience is more intellectual. Indeed, it is mainly intellectual and thus its participation is less immediate.” At one point in the play, Terry hears bebop being played and says something to the effect of, “you can’t dance to it.” Do you think this “intellectual” element of bebop that Ellison theorizes of had as much to do with the demise of jazz’s commercial appeal as did the music of Elvis, whose appearance and influence is dramatized in Side Man?
WL From the play:
Terry dancing with Jonesy, the one-eyed trombone player, on her wedding night. Gene, her husband, finishes a ballad, then plays a Bebop tune:
Terry: How do you dance to this?
Jonesy: You don’t. You drink to it. That’s another reason why jazz is dying. Let’s go to the bar.
I think Jonesy is right. The complicated changes and melodies of bebop were not the reason for the marginalization of jazz, but they were a factor. So much was going on in the states after World War II: the middle-class fled to the suburbs; the WWII generation started to have kids and stayed at home, where TV gave them another reason to not go out; the economics of touring changed (big bands could no longer make it in on the road, but small rock bands could).
The blows that pushed jazz aside were not all self-inflicted.
JJM The dialogue and the humor between the musicians in the play was wonderfully authentic. How much of this culture were you exposed to as a child?
WL Well, at the time I didn’t think of it as a culture. I thought of it as the adult world. Almost every adult in my Upper West Side apartment building was a musician or show person. My father, to this day, has almost no capacity to talk to people who aren’t in the business. He just doesn’t have any idea of what to say to them. Until I left for college, most of the men I knew were musicians, or former musicians, and most of the women were musician’s wives, or ex-wives or second wives or girlfriends.
JJM The musicians in Side Man were pretty stereotypical jazz musicians who fell to a variety of addictions, yet their hero was Clifford Brown, arguably the “cleanest” of all bebop musicians. Was he their hero purely in musical terms, or because they longed for a normal life? Can you please explain this?
WL Clifford was their hero because of the way he played trumpet. Few if any players had his technical ability, and his musical ability, and his swing, and his tone. The musicians in the play were life-long jazz trumpet players, so they knew how good Clifford was.
The fact that he was clean was something musicians always mentioned, but I think only in terms of the irony of his passing at such a young age. If my father and his friends longed for a normal life, they did so subconsciously. They probably didn’t realize how abnormal they were, since they only hung out with other musicians.
JJM A creative high point of the play is a four-minute scene where the sidemen listen to a bootleg tape of Clifford Brown’s solo on “Night in Tunisia.” Not a sound is uttered by the cast, only a state of quiet euphoria is expressed by each of the men. In fact, the scene portrays jazz being appreciated in an introspective, even “intelligent” nature Ellison expressed. Given that the dialogue of the play essentially stops during this time, weren’t you taking an enormous risk with this scene? How did the director (Michael Mayer) feel about this?
WL I brought the tape in for the basement workshop. When I told Michael I had it, he said, fine, we’ll play like ten seconds of it, then go the next scene. I said, it’s a longer solo than that. He asked how long? When I told him it was over four minutes he shook his head and said, honey, there’s no way… I asked him to listen to it just once. He humored me. And that was it. Midway through he said, oh no, we have to do the whole thing, don’t we? We ended up cutting out about a chorus early, but he never wavered from going long after he heard it.
We spent hours with the three actors, desperately trying to set the laughs and spontaneous reactions to Clifford’s triplets and arpeggios.
They worried they’d look rehearsed; I didn’t. I figured that no matter how often they listened to the solo, they would never understand it the way life-long trumpet players hearing that solo for the first time would.
JJM Are you aware that a recent biography of Clifford Brown stated that the famous recording originally understood to be made the night of Brown’s death was actually recorded a year earlier? Can you talk about this recording? Was it well known among musicians?
WL I hadn’t heard that about the solo. I am going to go on believing the story the way that I always heard it. I was a kid, and two trumpet players came over to the apartment one afternoon when the LP first came out. They ignored the other cuts and just played the “Night in Tunisia” solo. I don’t recall anyone saying a word. To them it was like a tape of the Voice of God. They just listened, and were transported. When my father came to see Side Man, he and I talked about the solo. He had no memory of that afternoon. The solo itself never stops amazing me. When Clifford Brown’s widow came to see Side Man, she asked me how I knew to write the line, “It’s almost like Clifford knew he was going to die.” She told me that when she heard the solo for the first time, she had had the same thought.
JJM How did you come to settle on using the Lee Morgan recording of “I Remember Clifford” for Gene’s solo in the nightclub scene?
WL I wanted an obscure, beautiful recording for this ballad. Actually, I wanted to go into a studio and record a track for all of Gene’s playing, but our budget didn’t allow it. Basically, I pasted the show’s score together from my record collection. The Lee Morgan recording is simple and spare, and you can’t tell who it is. When my father first heard it, he was totally confused. He called the morning after he saw the show and said he was up all night. I said, I tried to warn you the play might be upsetting. He said, no, I was up all night trying to figure out who was playing trumpet on “I Remember Clifford.” It sounds almost like Clifford, but… it can’t be him. Kept me up all night. Lee was a teenager when he was brought into the studio, and he was clearly a disciple of Clifford’s. Lee’s solo almost channels Clifford.
JJM Beyond the commercial aspirations for success with Side Man, what did you hope to communicate to our culture about jazz?
WL When I shopped the play around, I was told to change the title: No one even knows what a sideman is. That has changed, I think. As the son of a jazz musician, I know first hand how marginalized jazz is in America.
From the play:
There’s the National Endowment for the Arts, which is money for classical musicians, and there’s the New York State Bureau of Unemployment, which gives grants to jazz musicians. It’s a two-tiered system.
I wrote the play in hopes that people would understand who these men were, and what sort of sacrifices they, and their families made, for their music. I can’t stand that year after year Hollywood and New York produce project after project about painters, and actors, and almost nothing about jazz musicians. The stuff I saw as a kid was tripe. The closest TV ever came to depicting a jazz musician was Maynard G. Krebs on Dobie Gillis. Movies were just as bad. And theater was too serious to write about jazz.
Even after I finished Side Man, it took far too long for the play to get a production. The ghettoization of jazz has taken a tremendous toll on the music, and the musicians. Of course it’s not right, and of course I’d like to wave a wand and elevate the status of jazz. Too many musicians I knew went from Basie’s bands to working in the post office. Those guys are gone now. Their music isn’t, and should be celebrated.
Jazz community reaction to Side Man
JJM How has the jazz community received Side Man? Have you had to endure any of the same flogging Ken Burns got from the inner jazz circle?
WL Musicians were terrific. I was worried they’d take offense at the family drama, but instead they just thanked me, someone finally told our story. I also heard from dozens of children of musicians. None of us knew each other (musicians don’t seem to spend a lot of time coordinating their kids’ play schedules). I grew up, as did, evidently, a lot of other kids, thinking I was the only child in this strange world. Their letters brought me great strength. Which helped me to withstand the occasional rock thrown through my window by a jazz critic. The New York Times published an ill-intentioned piece chastising Side Man for cheaply commercializing jazz. The writer compared my use of music in the play to the use of a Coltrane solo in a Toyota commercial. He never bothered to call me, he quoted Clifford Brown’s widow out of context (she almost cried on the phone when we spoke of it). He had an agenda, and he wasn’t going to let anyone else’s opinion get in the way.
Many jazz bores somehow lost sight of the fact that there was a play on Broadway whose narrator was named after Clifford Brown, which told the story of Claude Thornhill sidemen, and which stopped all action for four minutes and made the audience listen to a Clifford Brown trumpet solo. Instead they nit-picked about why the score didn’t feature more obscure musicians or just one soloist (they had no idea that budget might come into play). Worse, several writers race-baited. How dare a play about jazz not feature black musicians, they wrote. Musicians, of course, were colorblind. As were audiences. Only a few jazz critics felt the need, as one musician friend termed it, to pee in the soup.
JJM Critic Peter Marks of the New York Times compared Side Man to some of the best works by Tennessee Williams and William Inge. When you read things like that, what goes through your mind?
WL The first time I read the review, I somehow missed all of that. I just noticed what he didn’t like. Later on I thought, I’d better go read those guys.
Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine
West Coast premiere at the Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles
John Spencer, Alexa Fischer and Jonathan Silverman
JJM How is your current play, Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine, whose theme also centers on a life in jazz, being received?
WL A split decision. Audiences and some critics like it. Other critics seem troubled that I dared to write about jazz again. Or that I wrote a play with more humor in it this time. The basic complaint from those who didn’t like it was, its not Side Man. Sue me.
JJM How has your life changed since winning the Tony Award?
WL For a while I lost control of my life. Too many phone calls and favors and “Would I write a recommendation for a friend of a friend?” And “would you loan me a thousand dollars I’m a friend of your dads?” And so on….Things are getting back to normal now, for which I’m grateful. Also, the play put me on the map as a writer. Although I still have to book studio jobs to make a living, I can be much more selective. I get to do more of the writing that I want, and less of the writing that I don’t.
Lesson learned from his father
JJM What is the most important lesson you learned from your father?
WL From the play (father to son):
You keep your nut small, you pay your dues… As long as you got a place to flop…
Basically, to take my writing seriously.
JJM What is on the horizon for you?
WL I’m trying to write two new plays. And, I’m trying to write the movie version of Side Man. This week I start to write a TV pilot to pay for all that.
If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Clifford Brown biographer Nick Catalano
Other Jerry Jazz Musician interviews